Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is a poem from Wallace Stevens' first book of poetry, Harmonium. The poem consists of thirteen short, separate sections, each of which mentions blackbirds in some way. Although inspired by haiku, none of the sections meet the traditional definition of haiku. It was first published in October 1917 by Alfred Kreymborg in Others: An Anthology of the New Verse and two months later in the December issue of Others: A Magazine of the New Verse.
"Thirteen Ways..." may be interpreted as one of Stevens's exercises in perspectivism, and accordingly may be compared to such poems as "The Snow Man". The perspectives that matter for Stevens issue from the poet's imagination, which, somewhat in the spirit of philosophical nominalism, can unify the world in various ways—for example, as a man and a woman, or a man and a woman and a blackbird (section IV). The artist's perspective may be shaped by what he attends to, as for instance on inflections or innuendoes—the blackbird whistling, or just after (section V).
The poem's haiku-like austerity is striking. Affinities to imagism and cubism are evident. Buttel proposes that the title "alludes humorously to the Cubists' practice of incorporating into unity and stasis a number of possible views of the subject observed over a span of time."
Sight is the dominant perceptual modality. The poems are almost cinematic, as though, and this is a somewhat anachronistic reading, in the first stanza, a camera focuses on a mountain panorama and then zooms in to the blackbird and its roaming eye. There is reason to classify it as among the metaphysical poems in Harmonium, because it creates an aura of mystery and intimates ineffable knowledge, perhaps conveying the message that 'death comes to all that lives.' But there are also grounds for classifying it as among the book's sensualist poems. "This group of poems is not meant to be a collection of epigrams or of ideas," Stevens remarks in one of his letters, "but of sensations." (See the main Harmonium essay, the section "A flavorously original poetic personality," for the critic Joseph Fletcher's contrast between Stevens's metaphysical and sensuous poems.) Lastly, as a poignant comment on American race relations, the poem deserves to be considered alongside "Domination of Black," "Metaphors of a Magnifico," "Ploughing on Sunday," and "The Jack-Rabbit."
The poem has inspired a number of musicians, including the American contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird which derived their name from the poem's eighth stanza which makes references to "noble accents/And lucid, inescapable rhythms", and inspired several specific compositions as well:
- "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird", by Lukas Foss, Thirteen Ways, by Thomas Albert;
- "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," by Louise Talma for Tenor/Soprano, Oboe/Flute, and Piano;
- "Thirteen Other Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" (Piano Sonata No. 2) by Charles Bestor; and
- Blackbirds, for Flute and Bassoon, Gregory Youtz.
Additionally, the title "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a..." has been endlessly paraphrased in articles (e.g. "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackout", music album-titles (e.g. "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Goldberg"), and anywhere else a particular topic seems to bear examination from a number of different perspectives.
- Others: An Anthology of the New Verse on Google Books
- Others: A Magazine of the New Verse on the Modernist Journals Project
- Buttel, p. 165
- Stevens, H. p. 252
- Thirteen Ways
- "Louise Talma: Compositions"
- Blackbirds, for Flute and Bassoon
- Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackout by Bruce Sterling for FEED Magazine
- Amazon page for Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Goldberg performed by Lara Downes
- Buttel, Robert. Wallace Stevens: The Making of Harmonium. 1967: Princeton University Press.
- Sharpe, Tony. Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life. 2000: Macmillan Press.
- Stevens, H. Letters of Wallace Stevens. 1966: University of California Press
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- Edward Picot's animated illustrations